With Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger sidelined with injuries and Kevin Garnett banged up himself, it would be easy for the Boston Celtics and their faithful to chalk up their disappointing first-round playoff loss to bad luck and look forward to the start of 2013-14.
However, the reality is that this Boston team was struggling even with Sully and Rondo, and with Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry aging, standing pat is not an option—not if this team wants to contend for another season.
Now that the team has exited the postseason earlier than anticipated, all of the talk in the Celtics' circle has—as expected—switched to the futures of KG and Pierce in green.
This is the murkiest offseason the Celtics have had since the start of the Big Three era back in 2007. While no plan is perfect, here are a few ideas for how Boston should approach their offseason plans to keep the team competitive and well-positioned for the future.
Boston has just one pick in the draft, the 16th overall selection, and it's their highest first-round pick since the year they drafted Jeff Green fifth overall and immediately shipped him to the Seattle SuperSonics.
The Celtics have plenty of areas of need to address with this pick, but with Garnett's retirement looming and rookie Fab Melo looking more and more like he's going to be known forever as the guy who walked into a door, the team is expected to target another big man.
One of the best options the C's have is Louisville's Gorgui Dieng, a versatile frontcourt player fresh off of winning a national championship in college. Dieng averaged 9.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, two assists and 2.5 blocks per game while shooting 53.4 percent from the field.
Dieng is a long, talented athlete who, at 6'10", could be the team's primary backup center and eventually be groomed to be a starter down the road. He is a great shot-blocker and defender who can control the glass with his strength and length.
Offensively, he is actually a surprisingly skilled player. He can drill the 17-foot jump shot with regularity, a valuable skill in a Celtics offense with Rondo, and he is an underrated post playmaker and passer.
Other options for Boston include Duke's Mason Plumlee, who would provide more offense than Dieng but is less skilled defensively, and sweet-shooting Croatian prospect Dario Saric.
The key to the Celtics' draft in 2013 is to grab a player who can contribute immediately for another playoff run, but has not maxed out his abilities and can potentially assume a larger role in the upcoming rebuilding years.
Obviously, the major trade Boston would pull would involve dealing Pierce for a package based around young assets and draft picks who could potentially grow alongside the team's young core of Rondo, Bradley and Green. This is an extreme move, but according to Adrian Wojnarowski, it is a move Ainge has seriously considered in the past. While it would undoubtedly hurt the team in the short-term, it may prove helpful in the long run.
Still, it's not like Pierce is a scrub by any means; he averaged 18.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game in the regular season, while shooting 38 percent from three-point range. He was forced into the slightly foreign role of point-forward when Rondo went down, but thrived down the stretch and remains a viable option for a team that's one piece away from contention.
Dealing Pierce has ramifications, though, as it could play a major role in what kind of decision Garnett and even Doc Rivers makes going forward.
KG has plenty of trade value, given his veteran leadership and defensive ability, but he boasts a no-trade clause and is not a lock to even suit up again in the NBA.
We could discuss the ludicrous trade Stephen A. Smith broached recently involving shipping Pierce and KG to the L.A. Clippers along with Rivers for a package of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and more, but let's not waste our breath.
More realistically, the Celtics need to find a way to move one of the four (that's right, four) bench combo guards they have acquired in the past year. Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jordan Crawford and Terrence Williams were all erratic during 2012-13, and all of them looked remarkably bad attempting to run Boston's offense.
Terry will be tough to move, and actually ended his season in solid fashion during the playoffs, while Williams is a low-risk, high-reward athlete who could be groomed into a true backup point guard with great size.
In all likelihood, look for Boston to pursue a move of Lee or Crawford that could net them either a frontcourt player or a playmaking point guard to come off the pine. They could also pursue the big man route through a trade.
What the Celtics can do in free agency largely depends on whether or not KG and Pierce come back. If both are back in the fold, this team has little cap room to do anything but bring in a couple of low-impact veterans and go to war with a hopefully healthy roster.
If one or both of the remaining Big Three remembers hang up their high-tops, then things could be very interesting for Danny Ainge and company when the free-agency period begins.
The Celtics' main target, if they have cap space, will likely be Josh Smith. Smith was nearly landed in a three-way deal with the Dallas Mavericks reported by Wojnarowski, and has a close relationship with Rondo, with whom he played at Oak Hill Academy.
Smith averaged 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists on 46.5-percent shooting for the Atlanta Hawks in 2012-13, and J-Smoove is the kind of all-world athlete who could help this Celtics team find their identity as they transition into a new era of basketball.
Other major options include Nikola Pekovic, a restricted free-agent center who could give the team some real grit on the inside. Pekovic is an old-school banger who relishes physical contact and has a surprisingly developed offensive game.
Al Jefferson, a former Celtic who was shipped out in the KG deal of 2007, would be a realistic option if the team shed some salary from Garnett and/or Pierce. Jefferson is one of the best low-post scorers in the game and averaged 17.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game for the Utah Jazz.
If the team looks to make small, low-impact moves, they could target rotation pieces like Will Bynum, Earl Clark or Al-Farouq Aminu to provide some punch off the bench. These are not headline-grabbing players, but they can all contribute at a decent level and provide the kind of playmaking (Bynum) and rebounding (Clark and Aminu) the C's sorely lacked in 2012-13.
Barring some unforeseen development, the best option for the Celtics' head coach position is the man who has been pacing the sidelines for them since 2004: Glenn "Doc" Rivers.
Rivers signed a five-year contract extension worth $35 million in 2011, with the implication being that he would be around to aid in the inevitable rebuilding process. However, it is a distinct possibility that should Garnett and Pierce exit, he will choose to do the same.
Rivers is an excellent X's-and-O's basketball coach who can draw up great plays, particularly in close games and out of timeouts, although he struggled with the team's offense against New York, relying heavily on a questionable Paul Pierce-on-Raymond Felton post-up. More than that, though, he is a phenomenal motivator who helped to build Boston's never-say-die attitude.
There are rumors from ESPN that the Brooklyn Nets will look into bringing Doc Rivers in to fill their head coaching vacancy, but Boston needs to work hard to ensure that they don't lose him at all, let alone to an Atlantic Division rival.
The team may need some small tweaks with their coaching staff; bringing in someone with a fresh take on Boston's stale offense could make a significant difference. But the reality is that whatever minor adjustments the Celts make will be meaningless if they let Rivers, viewed universally as one of the game's top coaches, retire or join another NBA staff.